A seven-year-old boy, grandson of the organist, plays the opening prelude on a Sunday morning. The congregation beams.
A lay leader is dying of cancer, so, one Sunday morning, her husband asks for prayers for his wife and their family. The entire service transforms into a prayer meeting.
Because no minister is available to preach, a lay worship team gets the job of pulpit supply. No member feels confident to deliver the sermon solo, but three feel able to speak for five minutes each. They split the sermon into three- to five-minute segments and rewrite the liturgy to spread sermon segments throughout the service.
Such scenarios are unlikely in large congregations. But all these serendipitous moments actually happened in small rural churches in southwestern Ontario, according to Peter Bush and Christine O'Reilly. Bush pastors Knox Presbyterian in Mitchell, Ontario. O'Reilly pastors churches 26 kilometers apart, Knox Presbyterian in Thedford and St. Andrew's Presbyterian in Watford.
Though small or rural churches don't get much attention in the religious press, they offer lessons and examples worth applying in larger churches. Rural churches also deliver benefits that larger churches use every Sunday, often without realizing their debt.
"People in rural churches are often proud of their heritage, yet discouraged because we live in a world that judges by numbers. But the fact that a rural church is still there is a testimony that as God's people we're here to worship and glorify him," O'Reilly says.
Bush agrees. "Small rural churches may not have the numbers or finances to run lots of programs, but worship is the center of their lives. As extended families they have a very strong sense of worshiping together."
People in small congregations don't have the luxury of saying, "Let someone more gifted do it." Many rural congregations are between pastors or share a pastor. Everyone in the church has to pitch in to keep the church going. This necessity nudges them to see each other as members of one body, each with the capacity to step up and feel God's power working through them.
"The idea of the priesthood of all believers runs like a spine through the workshops that Chris and I lead to train lay preachers and lay worship leaders. We base this teaching on 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 4," Bush says.
Their first set of workshops drew people from eight Presbyterian churches that had annual budgets less than $60,000 and average attendance of 20 to 60. Half the congregations had no pastor, so relied on guest pastors or lay leaders for sermons and service planning.
Workshop participants learned to look at the elements of and reasons for worship. With others from their church, they planned services to lead in their home churches.
During follow-up sessions and evaluations, a lay leader, who said he'd always been incredibly nervous in any public speaking situation, reported that the first time he stood at the pulpit to preach, God's Spirit graced him with calm.
"Two people said, 'You know the greatest joy? That the Spirit of God would use me to do this.' Everyone said they'd become better worshipers, not just while leading worship, but every Sunday. They realize how much worship matters. They've come to understand that worship is not a spectator sport-everyone is a participant," Bush says.
These insights from Canadian Presbyterians ring true to rural church members in the U.S. as well. "We have nine praise teams of four people each. I rehearse with them half an hour before the service. The idea is for them to participate, not perform," says Sharon Buwalda, worship coordinator at Corsica (SD) Christian Reformed Church, where her husband, Jerry, is pastor.
"People in the congregation enjoy those who sing, play, read, preach, or whatever not because it's so high-quality but because it's one of us," explains Joe Smith, a rural ministry consultant and temporary pulpit supply for two Presbyterian churches in northeast Minnesota.
Rural congregations know that each member is valuable. They also realize the church's potential to act as a valuable community institution.
"Rural areas are losing their grocery store, hardware store, drugstore, local school, and Rotary club. They experience robberies, thefts, addiction, alcoholism, and drug production. So the church becomes the community. That's why our two churches, though eight miles apart, don't merge. Each provides a gospel presence in town," Smith says.
Goodland (MN) Presbyterian Church is reaching out to 21 young people, only two of whom have Christian parents. In a school district geographically larger than Rhode Island, these kids are bussed to a larger school, where they feel they're treated as hicks. But five adults at church, including a younger couple who left the Twin Cities for lower-paying jobs near Goodland, started the youth ministry.
Smith says their secret isn't programming or a credentialed youth pastor. "It's personal relationships. They go bowling and play games with the kids. What surprised me is how much those kids enjoy praise and worship music. We may have scared the Lutherans when the kids led music at a joint Lenten service. It was definitely not the kind of music like when I grew up, designed to soothe."
Rural Christians know that a congregation needs each member, that a village needs each church. So it's no wonder that, as Sharon Buwalda notes, "We do joint things well." The Buwaldas say "all the churches in town" hold combined worship celebrations, Easter cantatas, and vacation Bible schools.
Joe Smith knows of two Minnesota congregations-
Assembly of God and Evangelical Free-that have shared the same pastor for 25 years.
Evangelical Lutheran churches dot former steel mill towns in Western Pennsylvania. Two such churches in Vandergrift formed New Hope Lutheran Ministries to call Phil Gustafson, a pastor with experience in large and small churches.
"They determined to be one in community-wide vision but maintain congregational autonomy in two separate places of mission. Collaborating helped them use each other's gifts and move beyond the self-perceived limits of 'we're just a small church,'" Gustafson says.
In north-central Iowa, six congregations from three denominations banded together as Countryside Cooperative Ministry. Congregations worship in their own buildings but work together to provide better youth ministry, lay-led pastoral care, and evangelistic outreach.
"Our people understand church as the entire body of Christ," says Jim Davis, the cooperative's administrative pastor.
Check out free or low-cost resources for including rural issues in liturgies, and energizing music in churches with no musical gifts. Examine denominational rural ministry resources in North America and Australia.
Read the book Cooperating Congregations: Portraits of Mission Strategies. Swap stories with groups involved in joint efforts to train church musicians and improve lay worship leadership in rural Canada and the U.S.
As these pages from Peter Bush's grandfather's worship handbook show, lay people have led services in rural churches for over a century. Take a closer look at thriving rural congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as Kansas, Michigan, and Manitoba.
Pastors: immerse yourself in books about rural ministry and increase your chances of staying In It for the Long Haul: Building Effective Long-Term Pastorates.
What is the best way you've found to energize rural ministry and worship?